The calendar has flipped to May, officially putting the first full month of the 2019 season in the rear-view mirror. As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, so what have we learned about the league’s landscape during the opening weeks of the season?
MLB.com polled 25 front-office executives on that exact subject, asking four questions to gauge the impressions teams around the league have left to this point.
Which team has been the most pleasant surprise?
Mariners: 10 votes
The Mariners received more votes than any other club, though the Yankees and Rays were right behind Seattle.
“They stripped it down to the bone and they’re winning,” one National League general manager said. “I don’t know if it’s sustainable, but they tore it down, were openly rebuilding and they’re having success. Completely surprising.”
Several execs noted that the Mariners have multiple hitters exceeding expectations, making it difficult to envision that continuing for five more months.
“They hit the ball hard and hit bombs,” an American League assistant GM said. “Probably won’t last, but it’s interesting to watch so many hitters performing at their peak. That always makes you wonder if they are doing something your team hasn’t tried yet.”
The Yankees’ inclusion on this list was a bit of a surprise in and of itself, though the plethora of injuries New York has incurred this season has made its solid play stand out to those around the league.
“With all their injuries and their patchwork lineup, they could easily be below .500,” an AL assistant GM said. “But their pitching is keeping them right there with Tampa Bay, and they’ve assembled enough depth to sustain an unsustainable amount of injuries.”
“They’re 17-11 with their B squad,” added an AL GM.
New York’s impressive run differential (the Yankees were plus-37 as of Tuesday) stood out to those that listed them as their choice.
“Their bullpen -- which is one of their key strengths -- hasn’t even been good yet,” an AL executive said. “Teams explain away slow starts or rough patches all the time due to injuries and the Yankees just seem to ignore them.”
The Rays -- who lead the Yankees and everybody else in the AL East -- received six votes, though each came with the acknowledgment that Tampa Bay was a solid team a year ago, as well. The fact that Tommy Pham, Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows -- all midseason acquisitions last season-- have clicked quickly has helped the Rays thrive during the opening month of 2019.
“For those of us who work in baseball, we are not surprised that Tampa Bay is building off of its success from last year,” an AL GM said. “But we all have to concede that we didn’t necessarily expect Tampa to have the best record in the AL by the end of April. They keep trading established, veteran big leaguers and seemingly just keep getting better.”
The Padres and Twins were the only other teams to receive multiple votes.
“I was expecting mediocrity or worse,” an AL exec said of San Diego. “But I’m beginning to believe they’ll be a solid Wild Card contender.”
“The way they are impacting the baseball every night has been really impressive to watch,” an NL executive said of the Twins. “They seem to get an extra-base hit every time they put the ball in play. I think everyone knows they are talented, but this has been above and beyond.”
Which team’s sluggish start has surprised you?
Red Sox: 19 votes
Not surprisingly, the defending World Series champions got named the most. The Red Sox got off to a 6-13 start and still haven’t completely righted the ship. Boston’s rotation ERA ranks near the bottom of the Majors, a stunning stat given the names in that group. The offense hasn’t been much better, ranking 20th in the league in runs scored.
“While their record reads like a typo, their run differential -- third worst in the Majors -- should be more concerning,” said an AL executive.
As for the four teams that also received votes, the Rockies have been unable to build on last year’s success, while the Angels have dug an early hole that could result in Mike Trout going another year without playing into October.
The Nationals' slow start received two votes.
“They’re underachieving in a tough division despite great performances from their top three starters and plenty of star power in their lineup,” an NL executive said. “Few are stepping up in the bullpen past Sean Doolittle, and the pressure will be high after last year.”
Then there’s the Mets, whose busy offseason brought greater expectations to Citi Field following back-to-back fourth-place finishes.
“I’m sure Red Sox will get a lot of mentions but I’ll say the Mets,” an AL executive said. “I’d be concerned with a .500 record, minus-20 run differential and their rotation not really looking dominant yet.”
Where will the Red Sox finish?
AL Wild Card berth: 12 votes
Out of the playoffs: 7
In the Wild Card hunt: 4
AL East champs: 1
Couldn’t decide: 1
Nearly half of the executives who took part in the poll believe Boston will bounce back to earn a Wild Card berth, though only one predicted they would win the AL East title.
“They have too much talent to not get really hot at some point,” an NL executive said.
Another NL executive noted the number of rebuilding teams in the AL, which should help Boston contend regardless of whether it can get back to last year’s level of play.
“How do they not make the playoffs?” the exec said. “Still, I have the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox in that order in the AL East. They win 85 games and come in third.”
Even most of those who predicted a dark October at Fenway Park believe that the Red Sox will find a way to make the season interesting.
“They’ll be in contention for a Wild Card, but fall short,” an AL assistant GM said.
Should the Red Sox turn things around and earn one of the AL’s two Wild Card spots, one AL executive believes Boston could become a legitimate title threat no matter how uneven its season has been.
“If they can find their way into the Wild Card game, they have a chance,” he said.
Who is the best team in baseball?
Dodgers: 11 votes
The Dodgers received nearly half of the votes thanks to a “balanced,” “well-rounded” and “deep” roster.
“Their depth makes them so tough to beat over 162,” an NL assistant GM said. “Despite losing six in a row already this year, and not having Clayton Kershaw for the first couple of weeks, here we are at the end of April and they have the best record in the NL.”
“I think they represent ‘team’ better than the others that are winning,” an AL executive said. “It’s exciting baseball; young talent, veteran pitching, strong bullpen and something to prove after falling the last two years.”
Los Angeles’ strong farm system was also cited by multiple executives, both for its usefulness in potential trades and the potential help on its own roster. The team’s positional flexibility was also a key factor for many voters.
“They’re just built to last,” an NL executive said. “They’re so deep, they can line shift on you, they’re very well-run, and their young guys are already established and really good. It’s a good mix of chemistry there.”
“The Astros' lineup is utterly unrelenting,” an AL GM said. “They have players coming off the bench who would start for most other teams. They have players at Triple-A who not only would start for other teams, but who likely would hit in the top or middle of other teams’ orders.”
“Top-three offense in baseball, two legitimate aces, and an elite back end of the bullpen for winning situations,” an AL executive said. “Hard to argue with that.”
The Rays received 3.5 votes (one executive split his vote between Tampa Bay and Houston), more recognition for their stellar performance during the season’s opening month.
“They picked up where they left off last year; they played the best the last two months last year, and they’ve continued that,” an NL GM said. “It showed you that they just didn’t get hot at the end of last year.”
“Good young talent on both sides and they know how to squeeze every last bit out of everyone,” an AL executive said. “They seem to have a unified organization which allows them to leverage analytics to an optimal level on the field.”
The three execs who chose the Yankees as the best team in baseball pointed to the success New York is having despite the presence of more than a dozen players on the injured list.
“Look how good their second and third team has been,” an AL GM said. “Wait until their first team gets back in the mix.”